I was driving on a busy two lane road when traffic screeched to a halt. The upcoming traffic light was green and there was no construction or obvious reason for the slow down. Horns started honking; drivers began inching closer to the cars in front of them and one impatient motorist gunned the gas, swerving onto the sidewalk to try to bypass the gridlock.
That’s when I saw her. An older woman was up ahead, sitting on the curb, blood streaming down her face. Several people had abandoned their cars to help. Others were on cellphones, apparently calling for aid.
I don’t know what happened and I never will. By the time I was close enough to get out of my car, someone was in the street directing traffic to keep moving. What I saw however, is a teachable moment in this election season of a very different type of gridlock that threatens our society. Slander and name calling is the new norm. Dialogue and debate have been replaced with hatred and anger, much of it directed at people we don’t even know.
Yet, here on this road in a Philadelphia suburb, a random act of kindness from total strangers should subtly remind us that despite our differences, we’re more alike than we often realize. No one who stopped knew anything about the woman’s political affiliation, religion or viewpoints. Yet, they helped her anyway.
In schools, children are punished for name calling and unsuitable behavior. At work, employees can be fired for inappropriate actions. At home, caring parents work hard to model decency and respect. Yet, our elected officials are not always held to the same standard.
In 2000, I ran for a seat in the Pennsylvania State House. For the most part, it was a great experience. We knocked on 25,000 doors which let me meet thousands of people I would have never encountered. Regardless of party or platform, most people were nice, respectful and happy to converse even if they weren’t voting for me. My son, nine at the time, stumped with me. It was a wonderful way to learn about democracy. Hundreds of volunteers, most total strangers, campaigned on my behalf. It was a truly humbling experience.
There were also a few not-so-great moments too that mimicked all that’s bad about politics on a larger scale. There was the mailer sent out by my opponent’s campaign intended to discredit me by suggesting unlike her, I hadn’t lived in my district my whole life. If moving to college counts, I plead guilty.
There was the influential Senator who repeatedly called my house at all hours, unhappy that I did not support his position on a certain issue. He said if I was elected and continued to oppose him, there would be consequences.
There was another powerful inebriated politician, who used to call me at all hours of the night to tearfully moan about a woman he loved. He said she was having an affair with another high-powered married official who was a friend of his and he was devastated.
I lost my bid for office by a very slim margin and have never looked back. I’m slightly ashamed to say I’m glad I lost. While I thought I could champion important causes and be a good example to others, the obvious dysfunction of our political system often prevents that from happening.
As a mother of two young boys, I wanted to exemplify strong working thoughtful women, who act and speak responsibly. From my limited experience as a candidate, I feared the people in power could threaten my hard-earned reputation if I didn’t do things their way. I couldn’t bear the thought of putting my family through the possibility of an unforeseen controversy created and controlled by a partisan divide, that is often more concerned with political fallout than doing the right thing.
In politics as in business, I’ve learned leaders are often concerned with status and power. Some fail to realize that leadership isn’t about status or power. Leadership is about behavior. Behavior, not status, sets examples.
Given there are 500,000 elected offices in this country, clearly there are good people who constituents are fortunate to have represent them. Some are quiet and steady and overcome challenges by working across party lines. They manage to get things done and if fortunate, they stay out of the headlines.
A recently published article by the former ambassador to Austria concludes that “a complete lack of civility has overtaken our politics.” He’s right, but incivility isn’t new. It’s just taken on a 21st century dimension. A dimension so fragmented that according to recent research, more and more young Americans have no interest in running for office. The research says they’re disengaged and tuned out. We can only wonder, if the next generation doesn’t run for office, who will effect change? After all, like it or not, it’s government that enacts laws and approves policies.
As November quickly approaches, it’s important to note that gridlock isn’t a new phenomenon. From Lincoln to Nixon to both Bushes and Obama, party control battles and politics seem to go hand in hand. What’s missing today, more than ever, is enthusiasm. Without that ingredient, people don’t vote. Even in 2008, which boasted the highest voter turnout since the 1968 elections, more than 4 in 10 Americans over 18 stayed home.
It wasn’t all that long ago that giant chunks of America, like women, were denied the right to vote. In many other countries, people still don’t enjoy that right. Yet, many Americans have come to take voting rights for granted.
Voting is your voice regardless of how loudly you choose to use it. If you don’t vote, you shouldn’t voice your complaints, because you made a personal decision to stay silent. Silence says overcoming obstacles isn’t an option. Silence says we don’t believe we can find common ground. Silence says we’d rather stew in anger than look for solutions. Silence says being stubborn and believing you’re making a statement by not voting, is more important than moving our country forward regardless of who wins the election.